"If you start thinking that only your biggest and shiniest moment count, you're setting yourself up to feel like a failure most of the time."
- Commander Chris Hadfield
This line appears in the ending section of An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth, and in my opinion, this concept is the nucleus around which Commander Chris Hadfield - the first Canadian to walk in space - has beautifully woven the fabric of his days at NASA. I am not particularly inclined towards non-fiction in general, and had picked this book mainly because I had just finished reading Jim Lovell's and Jeffrey Kluger's high-octane Apollo 13 - another work of pure non-fiction, which felt anything but - and going through the brilliant photos and videos tweeted by astronaut Karen Nyberg during her stay aboard the International Space Station (ISS) as a part of Expedition 36/37 in 2013. In short, I had something of a grounding on what to expect, but as I began and finished the book, I was pleasantly surprised to realise that while space and the exploration of the final frontier were intrinsic components of the chapters, they were certainly not the only things the book was about.
One chief reason I loved An Astronaut's Guide is because there is a constant building and breaking of the romance of space travel; so much so, that it begins to feel like any other job, like any other life. Don't get me wrong, Commander Hadfield has never, in way at all, belittled his life-long career, but he has put everything in the sparkling perspectives of work, its root and its consequences. Reading his words, brings to light the unknown and unthought-of aspects of the more visible outcomes of space-travel, and the way he describes them - dispassionately and with a slight wittiness - makes it easy to draw parallels in daily, apparently more mundane earthly-existence. Of course, the culmination of the efforts of earthbound workers would probably be a masterpiece of art or a life-saving contraption; for the likes of Commander Hadfield, it amounts to bobbing around in a spacesuit outside the ISS in space, with the ethereal background of the soothing, blue earth. Honestly, being of a worldly disposition, I'm almost ashamed to admit that the latter prospect sounds so much more fun, and that is exactly where the book sets the records straight - space exploration is a job, it needs what any other job needs: copious amounts of passion for the work at hand, enormous patience, competence, diligence, an insane amount of determination and a very, very grounded approach. (I'm sure I'm missing some other pointers too, but these are the ones that stick).
Despite the instructional tone - which I was a bit wary of when I first began reading - the book is actually delightfully light. It is one of those books which I could happily read page after page without really tiring (provided I had the time), but then of course, I could have barely consumed it all in its entirety. So I took my time about it, and the size of the chapters helped. What also helped was the descriptions of the training procedures and the life aboard and around the ISS, which simply by definition, are a world apart from ours. There is also a smattering of personal interactions and observations, though most of the book is largely clinical, and only aims to bring forth a learning or two from myriad events.
Another big plus - especially for laymen like me - is the absolute simplification of jargons. Jargons make me nervous, unless I have at least a hazy idea about them. In An Astronaut's Guide, the hatch of the airlock or the docking module are modelled on everyday items like manholes and barbeque components, which makes it all the more easier to visualise them and then appreciate the import of the situation.
Most importantly however, the reason I will recommend this book to anyone who would listen to me, is the amount of hope and inspiration it generates. It is bound to touch you, mostly because of the familiarity of the situations. One can sense the pride in the words, of a sterling career and an incredible experience, and as I read through, it felt nice to realise that such a situation is not exactly utopia. What's more, I can do it for myself, by myself.
Besides all the psychological impact, there is of course the astronaut's side of the story - beyond the back-breaking training and constant staying-on-the-toes, there is that unique avenue of adding value by engaging in something as thrilling as flying into space. I believe the book also, if not mostly, is a shout-out to the benefits of space exploration, and a part of my mind is already regretting the fact that I never considered that as an occupation.
In fact, even while I write this, I realise that it might be a good idea to re-read it a few weeks later, maybe even slower this time. Given that there is no element of suspense, that shouldn't be a problem too. Meanwhile, I'm quoting below something that Commander Hadfield has mentioned in the book and which particularly struck a cord with me...
'"My optimism and confidence come not from feeling I'm luckier than other mortals, and they sure don't come from visualising victory. They're the result of a lifetime spent visualising defeat and figuring out how to prevent it.
Like most astronauts, I'm pretty sure that I can deal with what life throws at me because I've thought about what to do if things go wrong, as well as right. That's the power of negative thinking."
Image courtesy www. panmacmillan.com; Quotes taken from 'An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth' by Chris Hadfield.